Monday’s announcement that Secretary of State Colin Powell, by far the most popular of U.S. President George W. Bush’s war cabinet, has submitted his resignation marks the formal launch of a new scramble for top national-security posts that could bring an even more hardline configuration to power.
Powell’s disappearance will remove the most influential foreign-policy moderate and the greatest skeptic about the use of military force from the administration’s top ranks, thus strengthening the hardline coalition led by Vice President Dick Cheney of aggressive nationalists, neoconservatives, and the Christian Right that dominated policy-making after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon.
Powell’s resignation, which will take effect only when a successor is confirmed by the Senate, will almost certainly be followed by that of his deputy and best friend, Richard Armitage, thus opening up another powerful slot in the foreign-policy bureaucracy.
The two most prominently mentioned possible nominees to succeed Powell have been current national security adviser Condoleezza Rice and Washington’s United Nations ambassador, former Senator John Danforth, a patrician Republican and ordained Anglican priest with little foreign-policy experience.
Both are considered relatively easy marks for hardliners, whose gusto and talent for bureaucratic infighting are well established. Neither has anything close to Powell’s political standing or public credibility; nor does either one have the connections to the military brass that sometimes enabled Powell, a former chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, to circumvent the Pentagon’s civilian leadership.
Rice, who does have the advantage of a close personal relationship with Bush that Powell never established, was widely criticized during the first term for failing to enforce discipline on the various agencies, while Danforth, whose tenure as Bush’s special envoy to Sudan was described as almost entirely "ornamental" by one insider, is considered a hands-off manager of the "old school," who has little patience for the nitty-gritty of policy, let alone policy-making.
Although Rice has talked frequently about returning to academic life, she is widely believed to want the job currently held by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who, however, reportedly wants to hang on for at least another year. Some observers believe Rice might be willing to go to the State Department if she had first shot at the Defense Department when Rumsfeld retires.
A Soviet military specialist by training and experience, Rice was first recommended to Bush by his father’s national security adviser, retired General Brent Scowcroft.
But Scowcroft, who also helped mentor Powell, quickly became disillusioned with his protégé when she sided more with the hardliners after 9/11 than with Powell, tilting the balance of power within the administration strongly in Cheney’s favor.
Scowcroft and other "realists" have also been deeply disappointed by Rice’s failure to effectively coordinate the policy-making process and then enforce discipline on all agencies to ensure that policy is being followed. In several instances, for example, the Pentagon is known to have deliberately stymied or ignored policy decisions with respect to China, Iran, and Iraq, with impunity.
The administration’s realist critics have held out hope that Bush may yet appoint one of their own to take Powell’s place either the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, or Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel. Both men, however, voiced strong public criticism of U.S. policy in Iraq during the election campaign, angering Cheney, in particular.
"Cheney looks to be at least as powerful in this term as in the last," a Republican congressional aide told IPS on Monday. "He thinks that dissent is disloyalty."
While Powell’s resignation was long anticipated, the context of Monday’s announcement particularly recent turmoil at the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) makes it more charged.
On Friday, CIA Deputy Director John McLaughlin announced his retirement, which he insisted was "a purely personal decision."
But on Monday, the agency’s two top clandestine service officers also announced their retirements, after a weekend filled with charges and counter-charges regarding tensions between the career staff and the management team brought in by new CIA director and former Republican Representative Porter Goss, who took over in July from George Tenet.
Their departure followed that of Michael Scheuer, a clandestine officer who ran the CIA’s office that tracked terrorist leader Osama bin Laden in the late 1990s. In a best-selling book published last summer, Scheuer had strongly criticized the U.S. invasion in Iraq as a diversion from the larger "war on terrorism."
Tenet, widely seen as a Powell ally in inter-agency debates, left the agency after a series of congressional committee reports that found serious failures in the agency’s performance, particularly as it related to Iraq, and Goss was reportedly given a mandate to institute major reforms.
While the resignations were depicted by some as the result of personal and professional vendettas carried out by Goss’ staff, including several who formerly served in mid-level positions at the CIA, other reports indicated it was part of a much broader political housecleaning.
"The agency is being purged on instructions from the White House," one "former senior CIA official" told Newsday on Sunday. "Goss was given instructions … to get rid of those soft leakers and liberal Democrats. The CIA is looked on by the White House as a hotbed of liberals and people who have been obstructing the president’s agenda," the official was quoted as saying.
That interpretation was bolstered by two blasts from prominent neoconservative writers, who charged that high-ranking CIA officials were responsible for a series of leaks damaging to both the administration and Goss.
"It is time to reassert harsh authority so CIA employees know they must defer to the people who win elections, so they do not feel free at meetings to spout off about their contempt of the White House, so they do not go around to their counterparts from other nations and tell them to ignore American policy," wrote New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Neoconservatives in particular have long sought thoroughgoing purges of both the State Department, particularly its Near East bureau, and the CIA, arguing both have been too optimistic about the intentions of Washington’s foreign enemies, especially Arabs.
In a book, An End to Evil, published almost one year ago, arch-hawk and former Defense Policy Board (DPB) Chairman Richard Perle called on Bush to replace career officers in the State Department, the CIA, and even the National Security Council (NSC) with political appointees.
Thus, neoconservatives are currently promoting Perle protégé Danielle Pletka, a vice-president of American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and outspoken and unapologetic supporter of the Likud-led government in Israel, for the post of assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs to replace career diplomat William Burns when he moves on early next year.
Depending on who takes Powell’s place, Pletka’s appointment would clearly suggest a purge was underway. Observers note that it was Rice who appointed Elliott Abrams, another strong Likud supporter, to the top Mideast spot on the NSC in December 2002.
If Rice does indeed take Powell’s place, she is likely to be succeeded by one of four possible candidates: her current deputy, Stephen Hadley; Cheney’s powerful neoconservative national security adviser, I. Lewis Libby; Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; or the ultra-unilateralist Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, who is also being touted as a possible deputy secretary of state.
If Danforth were moved to State, on the other hand, Bolton, who served briefly as assistant secretary for international organizations under Bush’s father, may be sent to the United Nations. Bolton is best known in Washington for his hostility to multilateral institutions, especially the UN.
(Inter Press Service)